Well, I’ll be damned. Take a look at this:
To understand the connection between Christendom’s principle of discovery and the laws of the United States, we need to begin by examining a papal document issued forty years before Columbus’ historic voyage In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued to King Alfonso V of Portugal the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories.
Under various theological and legal doctrines formulated during and after the Crusades, non-Christians were considered enemies of the Catholic faith and, as such, less than human. Accordingly, in the bull of 1452, Pope Nicholas directed King Alfonso to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” [Davenport: 20-26] Acting on this papal privilege, Portugal continued to traffic in African slaves, and expanded its royal dominions by making “discoveries” along the western coast of Africa, claiming those lands as Portuguese territory.
Thus, when Columbus sailed west across the Sea of Darkness in 1492 – with the express understanding that he was authorized to “take possession” of any lands he “discovered” that were “not under the dominion of any Christian rulers” – he and the Spanish sovereigns of Aragon and Castile were following an already well-established tradition of “discovery” and conquest. [Thacher:96] Indeed, after Columbus returned to Europe, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal document, the bull Inter Cetera of May 3, 1493, “granting” to Spain – at the request of Ferdinand and Isabella – the right to conquer the lands which Columbus had already found, as well as any lands which Spain might “discover” in the future.
In the Inter Cetera document, Pope Alexander stated his desire that the “discovered” people be “subjugated and brought to the faith itself.” [Davenport:61] By this means, said the pope, the “Christian Empire” would be propagated. [Thacher:127] When Portugal protested this concession to Spain, Pope Alexander stipulated in a subsequent bull – issued May 4, 1493 – that Spain must not attempt to establish its dominion over lands which had already “come into the possession of any Christian lords.” [Davenport:68] Then, to placate the two rival monarchs, the pope drew a line of demarcation between the two poles, giving Spain rights of conquest and dominion over one side of the globe, and Portugal over the other.
During this quincentennial of Columbus’ journey to the Americas, it is important to recognize that the grim acts of genocide and conquest committed by Columbus and his men against the peaceful Native people of the Caribbean were sanctioned by the abovementioned documents of the Catholic Church. Indeed, these papal documents were frequently used by Christian European conquerors in the Americas to justify an incredibly brutal system of colonization – which dehumanized the indigenous people by regarding their territories as being “inhabited only by brute animals.” [Story:135-6]
The lesson to be learned is that the papal bulls of 1452 and 1493 are but two clear examples of how the “Christian Powers,” or “different States of Christendom,” viewed indigenous peoples as “the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.” [Wheaton:270-1] In fact, the Christian “Law of Nations” asserted that Christian nations had a divine right, based on the Bible, to claim absolute title to and ultimate authority over any newly “discovered” Non-Christian inhabitants and their lands. Over the next several centuries, these beliefs gave rise to the Doctrine of Discovery used by Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland – all Christian nations.
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 1, 8 L.Ed. 25 (1831).
Davenport, Frances Gardiner, 19l7, European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Johnson and Graham’s Lessee V McIntosh 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543, 5 L.Ed. 681(1823).
Rivera-Pagan, Luis N., 1991, “Cross Preceded Sword in ‘Discovery’ of the Americas,” in Yakima Nation Review, 1991, Oct. 4.
Story, Joseph, 1833, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States Vol. 1 Boston: Little, Brown & Co.
Thacher, John Boyd, 1903, Christopher Columbus Vol. 11, New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons.
Williamson, James A., 1962, The Cabot Voyages And Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wheaton, Henry, 1855, Elements of International Law, Sixth Edition, Boston: Little Brown, and Co.
Ziegler, Benjamin Munn, 1939, The International Law of John Marshall, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.